By Sherma E. Benosa
Like in other countries in Asia, municipal solid waste (MSW) is a big challenge in India. But many Indian cities and communities have taken great strides in developing ecological and sustainable solutions to manage MSW, especially organic waste.
Earlier this year, 22 delegates from three Southeast Asian countries—the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia—as well as some parts of India (Chennai and Mumbai) toured communities in South India known for their exemplary organic waste management.
Organized by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), the tour was for the participants to learn from the experiences of the host communities in implementing municipal solid waste management (MSWM), from choosing and designing appropriate technologies and systems to engaging communities, fostering partnership with stakeholders, and changing public behavior.
The host communities—Trivandrum, Alappuzha, and Attingal (Kerala) and Bangalore (Karnataka)—have something in common: they all strictly implement organic waste management, resulting in huge diversion of waste ending up in landfills. Organics comprise the biggest waste fraction in India as well as in most Southeast Asian nations including the three aforementioned countries. Hence, proper organics management will have a huge impact in solving the problem of MSW.
With the exception of Attingal, decentralization has played a crucial role in the success of MSWM in the host communities. In Trivandrum, waste management is decentralized down to the household level; each household is required to compost. The government gives incentives, in the form of subsidies in composting bins, to households to manage their waste. In Alappuzha, the households bring their waste to a community composting facility.
In Bangalore, some wards (villages) have contracts with private companies to do the waste collection. Other wards work with waste pickers to collect and segregate waste.
Attingal, meanwhile, opted for centralized organic waste management. The municipality has a large facility with composting areas and a high-capacity biodigester unit for organic waste and shredder for plastic waste. Compared with the decentralized models, however, the centralized model emits unpleasant odor and is more challenging to manage because of the volume of waste.
The tour participants visited households and communities that use different models of composting and bio-digestion—the two technologies widely used in India to manage organic waste—to see which models and systems would work in their respective countries. They visited different types of communities and sites: dry waste segregation facilities, community composting sites, households, and some bulk waste generators such as hospitals, hotels, apartment complexes, and companies, among others.
They also met with host community officials and NGO representatives to learn about the practices and systems employed to manage waste, the challenges they encountered in implementing MSWM, and how they overcame those challenges.
In their visit to various communities, the participants learned about the basics of organic waste management as well as different techniques they could use in their own homes or communities. But more importantly, they learned that although the use of appropriate technology is crucial, effective waste management is not just a function of technology, but more importantly, of governance and political will and clear and holistic understanding of the complex issue of waste.
“When we talk about waste management, governance plays a large part. If you don’t have good governance, the system will not work,” Shibu Nair, Director of Thanal, told the participants. Thanal is a long-time GAIA member and one of the local organizers of the tour.
Good governance is one of the important keys in the successful organic waste management system in Kerala.
But having good governance does not happen overnight, the participants learned from the various Zero Waste practitioners they talked to during the tour.
Dr. Vasuki, Director of the Kerala Suchitwa Mission, an organization of the Government of Kerala responsible for evolving implementation strategy and providing technical inputs for sanitation and waste management projects, shared that their journey was met with a lot of challenges, among them trying to change the attitude of the people toward waste. By people, she meant those in the government, and the public.
“It was difficult to convince people that [the Green Protocol] is something doable. So we showed that an event without disposables can be done. But even after that, convincing people to do it was still a challenge. Making people understand that it can be replicated was also a challenge,” she said.
The Green Protocol is a government program that aims to reduce waste by, among others, banning the use of disposables.
Dr. Vasuki added that often, people think that concepts such as the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) are mere slogans and feel it can’t be done. “So, they just go to waste-to-energy and fanciful technologies. So, you want to make them understand that this thing [3Rs] is practical and if they do this there’s so much waste that they can reduce, and the need for processing can also be reduced,” she said.
The Mission built models and consistently educated the people. “Slowly, now the Green Protocol has become a reality. People now understand that it is the way forward and people are really embracing it. The public is aware. Business groups are coming forward and people are voluntarily implementing it. It is slowly becoming a cultural movement,” she shared.
Speaking about the experience of Hasiru Dala, a volunteer group in Bangalore, Dr. Sandhya also highlighted how difficult it was to change people’s attitude and emphasized the importance of stakeholders getting involved in the issue of waste.
“Everyone has to do his part,” she said, saying that they were not experts in waste management when they started the volunteer group, but that they learned through time.
She added that among the lessons they learned was that solutions should be customized to fit the context of the community. “We wanted our strategy to work in different zones and in different types of communities (malls, schools, villages, households). But we learned that doesn’t work. You have to have different approaches to different types of communities,” she shared.
The participants themselves agreed there is a need to customize the strategies and models they saw to suit their country contexts.
“I have learned a lot, but the techniques will have to be customized and I have to work on that. For example, the concept of waste pickers. Malaysia hires foreigners to handle its waste collection. I am also not sure how to implement door-to door collection and need to work out a customized mechanism according to the local situation. There is less manpower in Malaysia and the middle class will be reluctant to do segregation,” said Saraswathi Odian of the Consumers Association of Penang, (Malaysia), adding that she plans to do a pilot project in an apartment and in schools.
Still, there are technologies and strategies that may be adopted with little modification. One such example is the heap composting in Kerala.
“I think this will work very well in Tacloban,” shared Jonathan Hijada, Department Head of the City Environment and Natural Resources Office, Tacloban City, Philippines. “It does not smell, and it works well. But instead of using cement bars, I may explore using indigenous materials,” he added.
As of this writing, the participants are already back in their respective countries, and many of them have immediately started making models of the technologies and solutions they think might work in their countries.
But that’s for another story.
Sherma E. Benosa is the Communication Officer of GAIA Asia Pacific.